Book Review: ‘You Don’t Know Us Negroes,’ by Zora Neale Hurston – The New York Times

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YOU DON’T KNOW US NEGROES
And Other Essays
By Zora Neale Hurston
Edited by Genevieve West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“You Don’t Know Us Negroes” is the latest work by the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston to be reissued by Henry Louis Gates Jr., here in collaboration with the scholar Genevieve West. In just over 400 pages of essays — some previously published, others appearing here for the first time — readers get to peruse Hurston’s evaluations of just about everything imaginable: jazz, vote peddling, religious conversion, romantic relationships, international travel, the slave trade, Black vernacular, fake leaders, H.B.C.U.s, visual art, noses, other authors like Fannie Hurst and Robert Tallant, folklore, hoodoo and race relations in the South during and after Jim Crow.
This expansive volume, in five parts, revises existing perceptions of Hurston, like her well-known opposition to school integration and Richard Wright’s objection to her use of African American vernacular. Essays like “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” “Which Way the NAACP” and “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals” help to clarify Hurston’s previously misunderstood positions, rooting them in her deep appreciation for African American language and culture, her unquestionable commitment to people of color and their welfare on American soil.
The essays range from the well known (“What White Publishers Won’t Print,” “High John de Conquer,” “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”) to the never-before-published, like the title essay. “You Don’t Know Us Negroes” posits that white fiction authors are woefully ignorant about the true lives of Black people, and that instead of seeking to learn, they rely in their stories upon myth, stereotype and misrepresentation. Implicit in her argument is a commitment to Black culture that is decidedly out of line with the majority of white Western thought from the early to mid-20th century.
Especially striking here is the breadth of Hurston’s intellect on display. She peppers her essays with such exhaustive literary, historical, biographical, political, artistic, educational, religious references that if readers were simply to follow the footnotes alone (as compiled by West and Gates), they would gain a valuable education.
Hurston’s knowledge was matched only by her conviction. She is unapologetic and unbridled as she dares to call all subjects her business, even those that might give others pause today: like the “Pet Negro” system in the South, wherein a white supremacist takes a liking to and supports one Black person in particular. About “this underground hookup,” Hurston writes, “Who am I to pass judgment? … It weaves a kind of basic fabric that tends to stabilize relations and give something to work from in adjustments.” She finds the Brown v. Board of Education decision an insult because it challenges the ideas and institutions that have sustained Black people for centuries. If, she asks, the only good of integration was to have Black and white children seated side by side, then what was the point?
Readers familiar with Hurston’s work will note the continued signatures of her voice in these essays: the sassiness, the boldness to take to task those institutions or individuals who, in her mind, would exploit lesser-informed African Americans. She decries the selling of Black votes in the 1950 Florida primary, in echoes of Reconstruction-era politics; and her criticism of what she calls the “Begging Joint” schools: those hastily formed so-called institutions of higher learning for Black students in the South whose primary purpose seems to be the collection of funds from white philanthropists.
Wedding intellectual criticism to geographical movement as she travels the country — from Ohio to New York to Florida — she observes and comments on topics relevant to the political and social advancement of African Americans, such as the Ohio senator Robert A. Taft’s fitness to be president of the United States, or the trial she covered in Live Oak, Fla., in 1952. All of Part 5 is dedicated to this court case, in which Ruby McCollum, a wealthy African American woman, shot and killed Dr. C. LeRoy Adams, a well-known white physician and politician. Having coerced McCollum into sexual relations in exchange for medical treatment over a period of years, Adams impregnated her twice; one pregnancy resulted in the birth of a daughter, and the other was aborted. In trying to understand McCollum, whose trial Hurston attended but whom she was not able to interview, Hurston invokes her own inner visions and life experiences, as told in her 1942 autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road,” as well as in her portrayal of Janie Crawford in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937). Her own memories help her to sketch what she surmises McCollum must have thought and felt with Adams and during her trial. There are questions of poetic license, but they do not take away from this engaging and fascinating story of race and sexual exploitation in the Deep South.
“You Don’t Know Us Negroes” adds immeasurably to our understanding of Hurston, who was a tireless crusader in all her writing, and ahead of her time. Though she was often misunderstood, sometimes maligned and occasionally dismissed, her words make it impossible for readers to consider her anything but one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century. Despite facing sexism, racism and general ignorance, Hurston managed to produce a written legacy that, thanks to enduring collections like this one, will engage readers for generations to come.
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